2016-06-30
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At the age of 25, Jane Dobisz decided to undertake a 100-day Buddhist retreat in the New England woods. Because Zen practice doesn't allow taking notes, she didn't keep a diary of her experiences. But she wrote 10 poems that, 20 years later, helped her remember the details of her time there. Dobisz says she's glad she waited so long to write her book, The Wisdom of Solitude, about the experience. "Once I started writing, it was like I was just transported back there," she says. "I was just there, and you know, I could see my socks dripping water from the rafters and I could smell the wood and the cold." Dobisz recently talked to Beliefnet senior producer Deborah Caldwell.

What made you want to spend 100 days in the woods alone?

First of all being 25, I was pretty unencumbered. I was very much a dharma bum at the time. I wasn't tied into a big corporate job and a mortgage payment and all that, and I was practicing my Buddhism hard. The year prior I had done a 90-day retreat in the winter at the Providence Zen Center. And the year before that I did six months-I was a long-term yogi at Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. And then I felt like I was just getting into it.

The retreats you're describing that you had done the previous couple years, was it similar to the sorts of things you described doing in the book?

The year before I was in the Zen school and that was very similar except it was in a group. But, I mean, I did 6 months of a solid, silent meditation, all-day, all-night practicing retreat.

So you didn't speak?

You speak with the teachers when you have an interview or something. But no, I didn't, it was in silence. And I had all that behind me before I did this one by myself, but I think if I go back to the very beginning, I always had this curiosity. I felt like I needed to confront that-to confront myself in the barest form. What would that be like?

How old were you when remember first thinking you wanted to do that?

I was 19. I was living in Italy, doing the junior year abroad thing. I went to college when I was young, so I was a little younger than my classmates and I said to myself, that was my first spiritual weekend. One day I woke up, and I said, "You know, my whole life I have always been with other people, whether it's my family or the college dorm or something. I've never, ever spent one day alone." So I decided to go to Siena for a weekend, by myself to see what it would be like, to just be by myself.

And I think that was sort of the beginning of starting to practice, but I didn't really know that it was.it certainly didn't have anything Buddhist on it yet. And I remember being in Siena and kind of not knowing what to do with myself. Just sitting under a tree and thinking, "Well, so here I am" and of course pretty soon people walk by, and I started chatting with them and remained friends. You know, it was hard to be alone, so I just always wanted to know what would happen.

That seems very unusual to me for someone as young as 19 or even for that matter 25 to have this deep longing to be alone. Did it strike you as unusual? Did you know that it wasn't what a lot of young people wanted?

It wasn't so much that I wanted to be alone per se, because I really love being around people. I think it was more the question: "What am I?" The question was so deep that I would do anything to get at it, and that struck me as very important to confront myself alone with nothing there. What would be there? Who would I be? What would I find? And maybe it's unusual, but in another way, maybe everybody has that question. What am I? What is this life? But they just put it away somewhere because it's too big and too hard to get a handle on it and you don't know what to do with it and you just tuck it away and you think, "I'll do that another time."

I'm fascinated you had an almost childlike realization of that. Even up to that point.

It was helped by a major event in my life. When my dad went to Vietnam and died, he didn't get killed. He just he was over there .he was a pilot and he died. It was right at the beginning of the war and I was six. That was in 1964. And so he went off there for a year and he was gone for nine months and then we got a phone call one day and he just died. He was taking a shower-he was 44 years old---and he just died.

And I think that question went into my psyche and it formed that big question. Because you experience it first hand, like "Whoa, this thing is just a bubble and it's out of my control."

So is that what drew you to Buddhism?

I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school. The heart of Catholicism is probably pretty much the same as the heart of Buddhism, but the whole thing was just very rote to me. And it wasn't in any way satisfying that question in my heart. Because it just didn't address it by going through these standard procedures in the church .

That year when I was 19, I was in Europe, and I started meeting all these people. At the time, you could travel overland to India, and people were finding gurus and all this sort of thing, and some people mentioned to me that there was this thing called Zen. I thought it was flower arranging or tea ceremony or something, but I signed up for a class in college. The book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind was on the syllabus, so I went to the bookstore and bought it, took one look at it, opened it up randomly it said, "If you want to know if tea is hot or cold, you must drink it yourself"--and that was really it for me. I was done. I said, "That's what I want." And I looked at Shunryu Suzuki's picture on the back cover and of course, that face which has launched a million practices.I was done. I got on a plane and went to Nepal two months after that.

It was like, you just have to experience it yourself, you can't read about it, you can't study about it; you can't listen to somebody else's version of it. You just have to taste it or else it won't work for you.

The experience in the woods is pretty amazing. What was the hardest thing about it?

The hardest thing for me to deal with was boredom. There were a few like highlighted moments of being really scared or really lonely or something like that, but when you sit for a long time, the main thing is that desire to be.it's not even boredom, it's the desire to be somewhere else. But we always have that. But you get to see it in such an exaggerated way when you sit and that's the thing you have to keep remembering. You know, the screaming desire to just get up and just be anywhere else but where you are. And so there's that tendency to always want to have another daydream or just whatever.and it's just hard to keep coming back to where you are.

How do you do it? I find it very hard to try to meditate. I can't keep my mind focused. And I know of course that's the whole struggle.is to learn how to keep your mind focused. What did you do?

It's funny, it's 20 years later, and nothing has changed. I still have to keep coming back to where I am. Remind myself over and over, "What are you doing now? What am I doing now? Just do it." And that's what I would do. I would say to myself. I had a mantra and I would say to myself, "What are you doing now?" And I would just return to that mantra.

The mantra that I did is a very long mantra and you just keep coming back to it. It's your anchor. Now some people would use the breath or something else. But usually it's either the breath or a mantra. Ten thousand times in an hour. And that's the hardest thing for the retreat is just to be where you are and have that be enough.

I can't image. I also thought your whole description of the work period, the wood chopping, how difficult that was. At least to begin with.

To begin with--and then it was really fun. That was a big highlight. The sawing of the wood was hard, but the splitting was great. Because when you split it, you know, it goes fast.

And you said you got into great shape as a result.

I did, for once in my life.

Give me an example of something that became very clear during the retreat. And what becomes very not clear.

The things that become very clear are your perceptions, your ability to see and hear and smell. Because thinking that's normally obscuring a lot of that is by and large at rest. You know, the old shaking up the glass of water thing where you have dirt in the water and if you shake it up, the water's really murky and then if you leave it alone, that dirt just settles down like a sediment and the water's really clear. Your senses are totally heightened in terms of your visual, your hearing, your intuition is all wide open. And also I think you see in great detail, the cause and effect in your consciousness from one experience to the next, so you see, for example a thought of an old lover and then there's an emotion, of wistfulness or nostalgia and that turns into another thought and then.it's all going so fast that in one split second there's a million things and you're seeing all those million little things and the cause and effect of how it works and it's not so much you, it's just the cause and effect of thinking, smelling, seeing, feeling, touching, thinking.

And I think things get out of perspective . on group retreats I've seen someone get very obsessed over the altar.the water on the altar is an inch off to the left of something. You know, that kind of stuff. You get into your retreat life, and all those forms become bigger than life.

Now, I stuck to my schedule really tightly, but had I not, it would have been a huge event for me--whereas in my daily life, if my daughter's up all night and I can't get up in the morning because I really need to sleep for an hour before I go to work, I'm not worried about it. But maybe on a retreat like that, if I had ever overslept, which I never did, but if I had, it would have been like, "Oh my God!" Because that's all you've got.

Your obsessiveness.

Yeah. So once, I was out for an afternoon walk and there's a break in the late afternoon and I was walking down a long dirt hill, to a very rural road. For the duration of that 100 day retreat, I never went onto the actual road-I stayed on the land, inside where there were just dirt roads. And this one day, there it was.there was just a car. Now, there's this great sense of how, if you're in your normal state of mind, a car would not mean food to you, but in that state of mind, that's all that it could have represented to you. Lifesavers, anything.

Were you literally hungry, or just bored with eating soybeans?

Yeah, I was more bored with eating.I was not hungry because there was certainly enough rice and beans and I had sunflower seeds.I wasn't hungry, I was just.starving for a taste of some kind. It was like being taken over. I mean, my hand just went in there. I turned into an animal. Literally, I was looking all around. Darting around as if I was some sort of a rabbit. Like is some animal was going to come and eat me or see me or whatever, and I just grabbed these cookies. And then I shoved them in my mouth so fast, I couldn't taste them. It was like, "Oh my God, they're gone!" It's a huge urge.

How is an outdoor retreat different in a spiritual sense from a typical indoor retreat that you've done before?

You're really alone. There's a famous teaching in Buddhism that starts out saying, "Coming empty handed. Going empty handed." When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? It's not like I want to be alone forever. But what is it to address that? In a group retreat, there are the little distractions of the cute guy sitting next to you, or the teachers giving you little pep talks, or there's the quirky woman in the row across from you. And there's the support of a group. You still get to see a lot of great things. But when you're by yourself you just have to do it and there's nothing else. There's no one to look at, think about. And when it's dark and cold or you're lonely or you're happy or you're peaceful or you're confused, you're just there. That's it. You've got nobody, no book to read, nobody to talk to and no distraction and it's just very much heightened-the whole experience of it.

And you've not done one since?

I've done a lot of little ones since then. I went back there and did four-week, and a one week and weekends but I've done a ton more group retreats. I became a teacher and then I started. It seems silly to do them alone when you can help other people get started.

Had you read Walden?

I still haven't read Walden. I had not flipped through it at that point in my life, but I've flipped through it since then.

You've mentioned the question of being afraid to find out who you were, but that you were compelled to do it. Who did you find out you were?

It ended up just being me. None other than who I always was. It's just being at home with that. When you sit there long enough you see all the content and the storyline and the emotions and the grasping and the ignorance and all the stuff just come and go and come and go and come and go enough times that it starts to become like the weather. And instead of it all being my story and me and then when that happens there's this lightheartedness that surrounds it for all of the little foibles and just goofiness of who we are and just the narrow-minded pieces of ourselves and the jealousies and the fears and all the great, wonderful parts, too, that are so loving, and so giving. Everybody has this. And when you can accept those things in yourself, it's so much easier to accept it in someone else instead of react to it. You're like, "Yeah, I know that. Oh, there's that little gremlin." And you can see it in someone else.

So you think that was the most important lesson you learned?

The most important thing I learned is that I don't know anything.

Explain.

We don't know where we were before we were born. We don't know who we are. We don't know when we die, where we're going. We just don't. We could adhere to karma or heaven and hell or whatever .you can make up stuff. When you press things to the end of the line, the bottom line of everything is that it comes back to this place that's before any idea and before name and form and before thinking.

But it's very difficult to hold onto that idea because people want to control and know everything.

So if you can just get very comfortable with not knowing anything, that's a great, great thing to be able to do.

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